MARTY WILDE WAS ONE OF THE PACK OF 1950s BRITISH singers who brought American rock and roll to these shores and changed our lives forever. He was discovered by impresario Larry Parnes who changed Marty’s name from Reginald Smith to one created by the template which served many of Parnes’ stable of performers, a cute first name followed by a surname which suggested sexual aggression and untameable passion.
Not that this was realised by any of the teenage girls (and boys probably, but they didn’t say) who clustered round the television at tea time on Saturdays to see the stars of Oh Boy and Boys Meet Girl, the vehicles for singers like Marty and Billy Fury and Vince Eager, and the one who was to prove to be Marty’s nemesis, Cliff Richard. The ‘Cliff or Marty’ stand-off was a playground ritual. We all know who won.
In spite of this, Marty was the choice of embryo beat girls. Although his appearance was pretty clean and wholesome, with an unthreatening quiff and an endearing grin, there was something a little offbeat about his looks, and something a little on the -dare I say wild -side about his voice and his material. ‘Donna’ and ‘Teenager in Love’, both recorded in 1959, capture the essence of teenage heartbreak with soulful intensity. ‘Bad Boy’ hints at uncontrollable desire, the jangly guitar and gentle melody contrasting with the lowered voice, nearly a growl, on the title phrase. This song has been covered by Françoise Hardy (the French title is Pas Gentille – that’s telling him) and Nirvana. But Marty took emotional darkness to a different level with two songs which flirt with the dangerous side of passion.
‘Endless Sleep’ is a a dramatic song (written by American Jody Reynolds) about saving his girlfriend from throwing herself into the sea after a quarrel. The scene is set with the first line, the black night with rain pouring down as he traces her footsteps to the shore, afraid she’s gone for evermore. Rain in the water, heart full of fear. He thinks he hears her voice crying in the deep, asking him to join her. As the angry sea tries to claim the girl, he reaches out and saves her from her endless sleep. Now she is his to keep. The struggle between the singer and the sea for possession of the girl is eerie and haunting.
Marty recorded ‘Sea of Love’, a hypnotic, mesmerising song written by Louisiana-born musician Phil Phillips in 1959. The insistent repetition of a few phrases draws us in to a world where love is overwhelming with depths that are unknown. The song’s imagery is similar to that in ‘Endless Sleep’, with the sea as a powerful beckoning presence making us helpless and unable to resist.
A number of artists have responded to the song’s tug. Robert Plant’s post-Led Zeppelin band The Honeydrippers recorded it in 1984. The wild and doomed Del Shannon had a hit with it in 1981. Iggy Pop has sung it, and Cat Power’s version can be heard in the 2007 movie Juno.
And then there’s Tom Waits. You can hear his version on the soundtrack of the Al Pacino movie of the same name, and he also put it on his 2006 collection Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. His voice swoops and cajoles and it is impossible to resist the invitation to drown with him in the sea of love.
It’s a strange link, Marty Wilde and Tom Waits. But there was always that something about Marty, that hint that he could be something else…
Marty has reinvented himself over the decades – a brief stint as a glam rocker, as a hit songwriter, as the highly successful promoter of his daughter Kim Wilde’s singing career. He has a steady stream of appearances on the nostalgia circuit. He’s still married to Joyce, one of the group the Vernons Girls who backed him on television. He seems like a nice guy. But his Hats Off moment has to be those years 1958-60 when he truly rocked. This is the era I write about in my novel Living Doll, which explores the impact of rock and roll on would-be beat girls from the suburbs.